RTC contributor and bracketologist Zach Hayes will deliver permeating thoughts every week as the season progresses.
This week’s Scribbles column will take on a new twist- which eight teams I’d select to reach the four regional final games in late March. Now, I realize individual matchups within the bracket will determine the fate of these teams, but these are the eight clubs I feel like have an excellent chance of winning three games to reach the Elite 8 regardless of the teams that stand in their way. Some of these teams are the favorites, those expected to reach this level or their season will be labeled a colossal disappointment. The others are mild sleepers that certainly have the capabilities to make a serious run. Without further ado:
1. Kansas– One screaming commentator keeps telling me there’s not one clear favorite heading into March Madness this season. There’s no one team that stands above the rest akin to last year’s North Carolina entering the field as the favorite to hoist the championship trophy on that Monday night in April. This claim continues to baffle me for two reasons: 1) North Carolina was NOT the clear favorite to win the national championship last season. They entered the NCAA Tournament coming off a semifinal loss in the ACC Tournament to Florida State and were chosen as the #3 overall seed in the Dance behind Louisville and Pittsburgh. They were also dealing with question marks around Ty Lawson’s playing status. For a sample, I checked back to the NCAA Tournament pool I conducted last season and North Carolina was picked to win it all less than both Pitt (the most frequent) and Louisville. Even though the Heels featured the most pure talent, let’s put an end to this false claim. I also vehemently disagree that one team doesn’t stand alone this season ahead of the pack. To me, Kansas is the clear cut #1 favorite to win their second title in three years. Bill Self has the second most efficient offense and the third most efficient defense. He’s slowly but surely cut down his rotation and found a perfect balance. Most great teams start with a dominant point guard and center and Self has both of those covered. Even the enigma known as Tyshawn Taylor received a jolt from a surprising start by Self last Saturday and responded. I haven’t even mentioned the scorching hot Xavier Henry. The Jayhawks are an obvious Elite 8 team.
2. Kentucky– If any team can hold a candle to Kansas at this stage of the season, it’s Kentucky. The Wildcats have matched Kansas’ road triumphs in the Big 12 with impressive wins away from Lexington against Florida, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt. John Calipari has blended complicated personalities to perfection and found the ideal concoction to finally win a national title. I mentioned Kansas has a tremendous starting point with Collins and Aldrich; they’re actually topped by the inside-outside duo of John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. Wall has emerged from a mid-season turnover slump to play more like the December John Wall the entire college basketball world fell in love with. He’s absolutely deadly in transition and continues to make clutch plays down the stretch. Cousins will be the single most difficult player to guard in the entire NCAA Tournament, evident by his top-five rank in fouls drawn per 40 minutes. He has guard skills in a 6’11 body and is the most effective rebounder in the nation. The real question is if Kentucky can play a halfcourt game against the likes of Purdue and West Virginia should they run into either team. The Wildcats are much more ordinary than spectacular when they play a game in the 60s and are forced to settle for outside jump shots. Still, this team has the goods and the talent to reach a regional final.